The power to create change: the story of the first solar flight around the world

Throughout their careers, filmmakers Noel Dockstader and Quinn Kanaly have pursued and shared stories about science, exploration and the environment. In 2015, they caught wind of what may have been the most ambitious project either had ever heard of: Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered only by the sun, that pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg planned to build and fly around the world.

Kanaly and Dockstader spent nearly a year chronicling the ground-breaking adventure in their film Point of No Return—and in the process, documenting a great leap forward in the quest to uncover solutions to the problems posed by climate change.

In recognition of their critical work, Bank of America provided a $50,000 grant to Dockstader and Kanaly. The filmmakers will use the funds to power a STEM-focused classroom curriculum rooted in the collaborative, innovative work Solar Impulse represents.

Here, Dockstader and Kanaly discuss the implications of the historic flight, what they learned about innovation, and the impact Solar Impulse is already having around the globe.

Man in plane

1. What inspired you to make this film?

Crossing oceans in a plane with no fuel—the project struck us as extremely ambitious. We were drawn to the fact that it was true pioneering and knew that if pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg pulled it off, it could be profoundly inspiring.

We have told environmental stories before, important stories, but not ones exactly uplifting to the spirit. We were moved by this story because it was about a team of people trying to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat, united by a common goal—to make a game-changing statement about the potential for clean energy and technology.

plane flying over pyramids

2. What did Solar Impulse teach you about possibility, risk and innovation?

Leaders in the aviation world told Bertrand and André it was impossible and that they were crazy to pursue it. But that didn’t stop them.

After over a decade of research and design, testing and failing, they built a remarkable plane unlike any other--one capable of perpetual flight. When they took off from Abu Dhabi they had no firm idea that it would work or how they would pull it off. Despite all the unknowns and the risk, their perseverance and unrelenting commitment to this vision was inspiring to witness.

The hope and optimism in their eyes was infectious. It taught us to trust more in our own gut decisions – both in filmmaking and life itself -- and to expand our comfort zones when it comes to evaluating risk. Like the team, we had to learn how to embrace doubt as a personal challenge, not be discouraged by it.

3. Point of No Return is a 21st-century adventure story, but what are the bigger implications of the project?

When considering the global environmental challenges facing our planet, doing nothing, not attempting to work on solutions, seems by far the biggest risk of all.

The film title, Point of No Return, not only refers to the critical decision the team makes over the ocean to press on despite significant risk, but also to where we are in relation to the changing climate. We’ve reached a critical point where, collectively, we have to find a way to make big, bold, game-changing decisions and find a more sustainable existence. The innovation, collaboration and grit that it will require is, in many ways, embodied in the Solar Impulse mission.

There was a renewed sense of hope in the human spirit to accomplish amazing things.

4. As you followed Solar Impulse around the world, how did people’s reactions differ?

In the many of cities and towns, it was a bit like a UFO movie where everybody just gazes upwards and can’t quite believe what they are seeing. There was a renewed sense of hope in the human spirit to accomplish amazing things.

In India, the plane was a rock star of technological ingenuity. The crowds were giddy and pushing to get selfies with the plane. In Hawaii, many related to the idea behind Solar Impulse of working with nature, not dominating it. But in the U.S., perhaps the most enthusiastic receptions were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dayton, Ohio, birthplace of the Wright brothers and the aviation industry.

The United Arab Emirates, where Solar Impulse finally completed its epic journey, is now one the world’s leaders in implementing renewable technologies and infrastructure—a realization from this oil rich region that the future depends on cleaner, more sustainable solutions.

5. Tell us about the curriculum you’re creating with the Bank of America grant.

We are creating a shorter educational version of the film for classrooms, along with curriculum guides and activities such as hands-on building kits focusing on renewable energy. We envision the Solar Impulse story as a powerful jumping-off point to engage students in STEM, foster creative problem solving, and spark dialogues about innovative solutions and sustainable living in response to the global climate issues that confront us today.

Our aim is to energize and empower the next generation of environmental stewards to take matters into their own hands and to innovate, explore and become the next generation of pioneers.

Originally published 11/9/18